Over the last few years, I have heard a question among Christians around me that has caused me to consider (and reconsider) some of my beliefs. The question is this: Should Churches Allow Hillsong and Bethel Worship Songs?
If you are not familiar with those churches/artists, they have been writing songs for churches for a few decades, such as “Shout to the Lord” years ago or “What a Beautiful Name” more recently.
While some people love these songs (especially people that agree with the charismatic or Pentecostal doctrines of churches like Bethel and Hillsong), others question their validity for evangelical churches because of different beliefs on even major biblical doctrines.
For example, one pastor named Costi Hinn (the nephew of a Pentecostal prosperity-gospel leader named Benni Hinn) has taken a hard stance against the music from these churches (and others such as Jesus Culture and Elevation Church) because of how much the songs remind him of his past unbiblical beliefs.
No matter what our personal beliefs are, though, it is healthy for us to try to respect the beliefs of others and especially respect the decisions made by pastors or elders over their own congregation.
I love discussing worship music (or “hymnody”) and have all kinds of thoughts and feelings on this topic. But rather than giving you yet another opinion on this, I want to offer four short statements that will hopefully contextualize or reframe this question to help us think it through and come to our own prayerful decision.
1. Varying Beliefs Do Not Make Music Ungodly
Several years ago, a family member stopped listening to a song that he loved and that spoke to his heart because he found out new information on what the author believed.
But calling a song ungodly just because the artist holds beliefs that are different from ours or even unorthodox would be like calling a business ungodly because it is owned by someone from a different denomination or calling a meal ungodly because your restaurant server holds unbiblical views.
Ironically, many people that hold hard lines against worship music (over doctrine, style, or artists) watch movies and shows from non-Christian writers and producers and listen to secular music from country, rock, pop, or classical artists that are not Christians.
But even if we did apply this reasoning consistently and tried to be picky with the artists, we allowed into our worship music database, chasing down the theology of hymn-writers is at best horribly tedious and at worst impossible.
If we were able to find out the beliefs of the last few centuries of the Church’s songwriters, we would end up with a very short list of people that match our denomination and doctrinal persuasions. For example:
- Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance”) was a Puritan; John Newton (“Amazing Grace”); Reginald Heber (“Holy Holy Holy”) was an Anglican.
- Isaac Watts (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) was a “non-conformist;” Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord was Risen Today”) was a Methodist; Horatio Spaffod (“It is Well”) was a Presbyterian.
- Bill Gaither (“Because He Lives”) was trained in a Church of God seminary then became Church of Nazarene; Chris Tomlin (“How Great is Our God”) is non-denominational, and the list could go on.
On top of this, there are other songs that our churches sing that we do not have much information about the beliefs of the artists who wrote them.
2. God Always Uses Imperfect People for His Divine Purposes
The Old Testament is full of many examples of how God works miracles with the mundane, including the story of the shepherd-king, David, who wrote countless songs of praise.
The church I attended as a young man held an unhealthy understanding of this principle, which resulted in the shame of imperfection halting people from living obedient, abundant lives.
But no one has perfect actions or flawless doctrine. We probably all have biblically correct beliefs in some areas but have other beliefs that are wrong or a “work-in-progress” due to our upbringing, misunderstanding, misreading, or lack of education about it.
And if we do not recognize that, it may be because we are judging the correctness of our beliefs according to our own personal skewed standard of correctness instead of the perfection of God’s Word. But despite our imperfection, God still uses us for his divine purposes to accomplish his will.
So even if we determine that an artist actually does believe falsely about a particular doctrine (such as eternal security, gifts of the spirit, predestination, prosperity, women pastors, the rapture, tradition, the sabbath, or infant baptism), that does not mean that their music should not be sung in our churches. This leads to my next point.
3. The Lyrics of a Song Matter Most
The truthfulness of the words in a song matters exponentially more than who wrote then, when it was written, what style it was written in, what bands or play it, and how it makes us feel (which is what most people naturally judge music on).
If we pick music according to any other standard than the truthfulness of the words, we will end up with a culture of criticism that not only wrongfully prejudges artists and casts out their songs, but dismisses entire genres or styles (such as soft rock or country), musical eras (such as songs written in the last 30-40 years), or instrumentation (such as piano or drums — which are ironically both percussion instruments) simply because they do not match our preferences.
If a song is, first, true and, second, moves us in worship to God, then sing it! It is fine to feel uncomfortable singing a song because we do not prefer its style, artist, language, or origin or we are unfamiliar with it, but we must be careful to focus on the lyrics in our judgments of it, not its other inconsequential characteristics.
4. Churches Must Care about the Songs They Sing
Doctrine in the church is communicated by what is taught and as well as what is sung. As Keith Getty (a modern hymn-writer) explains, pastors and church leaders must care about the songs that their church sings, just as a father should care about the songs his children sing.
He wrote, "Love your people enough to care about what they sing… [if not, we will have] a generation of children going to churches that are imaginative and lively and fill their imaginations but are shallow.”
Or on the other hand, he continues, “We get people going to churches that are full of truth, but they're so boring and so loveless and joyless that there's none of the attractiveness of Christianity to draw people. The first thing that actually attracts their imagination will draw them away."
Getty goes on to stress that our children growing up in our churches need to be given good songs that teach them Scripture. He wrote that we need to teach them to be “more passionate and be more creative and imaginative in love for the Lord than their love for Disney.”
One of the ways we do this, according to Getty, is to play truthful songs that fill their emotions with the Lord. If not, their minds and emotions may be filled with anti-Christian songs from the culture around them. Websites such as thebereantest.com help us make sure songs are biblically correct.
We are blessed today to have psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs from the last couple thousand years at our disposal that represent different eras, cultures, denominations, and focuses. As we wade through that sea of songs, we will find some phrases, styles, instrumentation, and arrangements that we are not immediately comfortable with.
And maybe you will appropriately choose not to sing a song (whether it is brand new or centuries-old) or maybe you will tweak the lyrics to make them more accurate.
But if a song or style simply doesn’t resonate with us because of our preferences, opinions, or experiences, we do not have to (as Bob Kauflin wrote in Worship Matters) “throw the baby out with the holy water.”
Instead, we should be guided by a biblical principle that Paul gives in 1 Timothy 4:4-5: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
Pastors, worship leaders, and church members — may we do our best to keep our worship solely focused on Christ, keep Scripture as our guide in our song selection, and do what we do for his glory.
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Photo Credit: ©Hillsong Church Facebook
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.